Former Australian captain Lisa Sthalekar, who was in Mumbai a few days back as a commentator for the India-Windies ODI series, spared some time for a chat with Sportstar , at a city hotel, and spoke at length about women’s cricket.
One of Australia’s most successful cricketers, Sthalekar was at her candid best and answered all the questions that came her way.
Q) How do you think has women’s cricket evolved?
A) It has really over the time. When I first started, it was still at a semi-professional stage. We did it for the love of the game. You played it amongst your full-time works, there was not enough time to train and dedicate. Players now are all pretty much professional, they all can now train in the day, have proper recovery and eat at decent times. We are starting to see the reasons why the game is so exciting, it is because the girls have been able to dedicate more time to their strength, conditioning and skill work.
Now, it is more professional and there is a lot of money coming in. With this, a lot of youngsters also are taking up the game. So, what should a young cricketer keep in mind when she is considering to pursue cricket as a career?
You talk about professionalism in the game. Well, players before me were also professionals, the only difference now is, they are getting paid for it. The work ethic and the dedication those players before me put in to ensure that they play competitive cricket was pretty amazing. There were stories of people travelling ridiculous hours to get one training a week and then, go back home and travel again. When you talk about professionalism, you got to separate it by saying that today, the players are getting remunerated for what they are doing. They don’t have to juggle. The professionalism has come with the money tag. If there were opportunities back then, the female players would have done it. They found ways to be good enough at their times.
So, what do you suggest?
Now, someone who is coming up the ranks and trying to do well, it is all about dedication and doing the skill work. I think it is also necessary to have a balance. Some kids feel that since there is a financial benefit here, they can make it as their career. They end up putting all the eggs in one basket. It is important to play different sport as they are growing up. So, do not put everything in cricket. I also believe education is very important. If you are well balanced, and if you have a better understanding and appreciation of sports and cricket, you can excel quite well.
With the World T20 set to get underway in the West Indies, let’s talk a bit about international cricket. How important is it to have a separate window for women cricketers in ICC events rather than tagging them along with men’s tourneys?
It is a good step to ensure that people understand that it is the women’s game. It is an event in itself. The skill-level and what the players do on the field, it is good enough to have its own event. So, West Indies will be the first standalone tournament, so it is really important that fans come out, engage and watch the games. All matches will be televised for the first time. I think it was initially important to stage men’s and women’s event at the same time. All organisations, members units, the broadcaster, the ICC realized that the growth from the game will come from women’s cricket. That’s where you need to invest a bit more and your growth will be a lot more than your investment.
What are your thoughts on the Indian team? Do you think it has emerged immensely over the years?
I played India in my first World Cup final in 2005 and I thought they are going to be a strong and powerful side. It never seemed to have occurred. Only last year, we saw glimpses of it in the World Cup. Look at the semifinal against Australia. One innings by Harmanpreet (Kaur) won that match. India needs to play consistent cricket at the highest level. They haven’t been able to be there. They have got the skill and talent, but something is not clicking for them at that level. For the global game, as we see in men’s cricket, India needs to be a powerhouse and it will help grow the game. I hope they have a very good tournament in World T20. They might be slightly behind other teams on how they approach, but conditions might suit their spinners and batters.
Since a large portion of the money comes from India, do you think it is time the BCCI ensures an equal amount of exposure for the women cricketers?
Yeah, I think the players are certainly craving for more cricket. Not only at the international level, but more importantly at the domestic level. Better structure, more games. I was talking to some people at the ground the other day, and they were explaining how many domestic games the team plays a year. It is probably about 24 matches, whereas, in India, it would be around 10. That’s not enough cricket to become good. People are talking about the women’s IPL and the hesitation around it. I think it is because there is not enough domestic cricket. At some point, you have to build that up. I actually think there is so much talent in India, it has not been unearthed. Maybe, the structure or the pathways are not clear for young females to go ‘Oh, I want to play cricket for my country. This is how I should do it.’ Once you start educating the mass, you would be surprised with the talent that would come up. And, by the population…you guys should beat everyone around you.
Before we dream of having a women’s IPL, we should get the structure right. Is that what you are referring to?
Absolutely. I can only give you examples of what is going on in Australia and the domestic tournament has been going on since the 1930s and so many states play that. We have got an Under-age national championship, we have got junior programmes — if you are a player within regional New South Wales, you know how to get into the New South Wales team, eventually the Australian team. So, there is a clear structure there. That has been running for 20 years and people know it exists. A lot of money was invested. That’s why NSW is very strong and most of the Australian players are from the NSW team, so there is some correlation in that. Before an IPL starts, something needs to be done so that the Indian players can play more domestic cricket and junior cricketers.
You were a part of the commentary team for the women’s T20 exhibition match that was played this year, ahead of the IPL qualifiers in Mumbai. But, very few turned up for IPL exhibition match. Your thoughts?
If you play at 2pm in Mumbai at that time of the year (in May), I don’t blame the crowd for not coming out. Seriously. I don’t know what the viewership figures were, but certainly, if they were to do it again, there is a night free before you start the playoffs. (During the IPL), you are used to having cricket every night at 7 o’clock. So, you play in the evening before the playoffs.
So, do you think the time is still not right for women’s IPL?
In Australia, I have seen that if you promote it and make it available, people will come to watch it. To be honest, we are going through a bit of renaissance in anything related to women’s sports in Australia. Everyone is talking about going to a women’s event and not necessarily a men’s event, so there is a cultural change in Australia. Here, I don’t know whether there is a cultural shift. But, when Indian players lost the World Cup final in England and they came back here, they were mobbed. You would like to tap into that. If the team does well, the fans support you. If the Indian team does well, that would mean that things would hopefully go better, and more money is invested. That way, we might see women’s IPL in the future.
Coming back to World T20. Which are the teams you are rooting for this time?
I have never been to Guyana, but the conditions are good in St. Lucia. I have some concerns overt Guyana and I think there will be low scores. It is going to be a good contest. At the moment, the front-runner has to be the Australian side. Meg Lanning is dropped down to number five and she is finishing innings now. Firepower is at the top and there are good spinners. The balance is right. England, on their day, can challenge anyone. Windies are always a bit of dark horse, you don’t know what you get from them. Given that they are playing at home and fans coming cheering, they can play better. If they wake up on the right side of the bed, they can blow a team apart. You saw what they did in Kolkata in 2016.
What are India’s chances?
They rely heavily on Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana. If India is to do well, those two need to score a lot of runs. The same thing goes for the Australian team. If Healy gets off to a good start, then Lanning comes in, there are constant names that need to be in form. What India needs to do is that they need to have a couple of people who can find the boundary. I think Pooja Vastrakar has got the ability to find boundaries in the end. I want to see Mithali Raj break the shackles and show us something completely different from what we have seen over the decade. She is always technically right and is a treat to watch, but in T20 cricket, you don’t get points for who looks good, but is about who gets the most runs. She has got the ability to clear the boundaries easily. She needs to play a big role.
What about Jemimah Rodrigues?
The times that I have seen her, she hasn’t scored runs. But, everyone is talking about her. They have high hopes. Hope, I get to see the best of her and she has the best tournament. Elys Perry played for Australia when she was just 16, so some players are mature enough and it doesn’t matter how old you are. It is about coping with the situation.
After quitting cricket, many cricketers have turned coaches. Do you plan to follow suit?
I love coaching. When I was playing for my country, I was working full-time with Cricket New South Wales. So, I certainly enjoy it and I enjoy commentating. I would love to help the players and give training ideas. But, as for a full-time coach? I don’t know. It is a hard industry to be a head coach. If the team doesn’t do well, who’s the first one to go? The coach! It is a difficult profession to be settled. I am lucky that commentary is going well, and I get to travel the world. I would never be a head coach but would happy to help out when opportunities come.
Some of the women cricketers like you have taken up commentary seriously. Even today, most of your fellow commentators are male cricketers. How challenging is it to make your presence felt?
If people think commentating is easy, I urge them to do it. There is no quiet time really. You need to know what to say and appear intelligent and also pronunciation. It was a challenge and was a different industry. My first IPL was in 2015 at the Eden Gardens. There were thousands of people screaming and then there was my co-commentators Danny Morrison, who is screaming at me (laughs) and Pommy Mbagwa. I could not believe that I was doing this. I pinched myself. If I was to listen back to when I commentated for the first time, it was terrible. Just like cricket, here too, with more practice, you get better. I am lucky to have people who have helped me. Hopefully, Me, Isa Guha and Mel Jones — we are able to bring in a new perspective. By having females in the commentary box, you know cricket is not a male-dominated sport and everyone is a part of it. Whether you are watching it or playing it — female love the game, so why can’t we have opinions on it?